42. Midnight Cowboy (1970)

Title: Midnight Cowboy

Release Date: 25 May, 1969

Oscar Ceremony: 7 April, 1970

Director: John Schlesinger

Starring: Dustin Hoffman & Jon Voight


Nominees: Anne of the Thousand Days, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hello Dolly!, Z


“Uh, well, sir, I ain’t a for-real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud!” – Joe Buck

Midnight Cowboy is hands-down one of the saddest and most depressing films I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m not talking about a Titanic bawl-your-eyes-out kind of sad, but more like a LIFE kind of sad. The thing is, it’s just so darn good. Honestly, my jaw dropped. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it definitely left a profound effect on me.

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Jon Voigt plays Joe buck, a young man from Texas, who quits his dishwashing job, packs some cowboy clothes and decides to move to New York City in the hopes of making it big as a male prostitute. The thing is, he isn’t really cut out for it. He’s very simple-minded and naïve, which makes it easy for others to take advantage of him. Right from the start, you can’t help but feel extreme pity for him even if he might not be the most noble character. He eventually meets Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a street conman with a limp, who offers to set him up with a pimp. While initially Rizzo scams him, the two end up forming an unlikely friendship and live together in an abandoned apartment with no heat or electricity. They are both broke and struggle to get through life in the hopes of eventually achieving their dreams: Joe Buck wants to be a successful prostitute and Ratso wants to move to Miami. As the film progresses, both men have fantasies about what their ideal life will look like once they make it.

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Welcome to the ugly side of the American Dream. You pack your things and leave your hometown with big dreams, but it doesn’t take long for you to realize that that’s all they’ll ever be. However, Joe Buck refuses to let go and fails to face his tragic reality. He naively clings onto his futile aspirations and us viewers hopelessly watch him do it with pity in our hearts. One of the most prominent symbols in the film is Joe Buck’s portable radio, which he brings with him everywhere he goes. It is obviously his most prized possession and also his sense of direction in life. He lets himself be guided by whatever he hears on it, just like a lot of Americans live their lives according to unrealistic standards propagated by the media. When Joe eventually decides to give it up in exchange for some cash, we realize just how desperate his situation has become. It’s like watching a child lose his favourite blankie.

As illustrated in the film’s numerous flashbacks, Joe is the product of a troubled past. He might have backward morals but it’s hard to blame him for them, because he never had the chance to learn OR experience any better. While Ratso is almost his opposite in terms of character, he suffers from similar emotional damage after the death of his father and his childhood polio (which left him with a physical disability). Although both situations are ones that I could not relate to, I was still profoundly affected by them. Everything about Midnight Cowboy digs deep into the core of human emotion and somehow finds a way to universalize the characters’ struggles.

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There is something both beautiful and sad about the relationship that Joe and Ratso develop. Their unspoken love for each other is the definition of friendship. After all their failed attempts at making something of their lives, all they really have is each other. The more you learn about them, the more you care about them and the harder it is to see their lives get closer and closer to rock bottom. Jon Voigt and Dustin Hoffman blew me away in their ability to portray such raw and genuine emotion. It takes real talent and empathy to deliver something this special, and I cannot think of anyone who could have done it better than these two men.

It was very hard for me to write this review and I kept putting it off. I still don’t think I was able to truly capture everything about Midnight Cowboy that made it so powerful, but that’s just it; great movies often leave you speechless, and in this case, I’m pretty sure words aren’t enough to do it justice.

 

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